Does France, as various analysts have argued, see religion as a threat to its national identity? It looks like it.
Emmanuel Macron, recently elected for a second term as President of the French Republic, stood under the chandeliers of the Elysee Palace on Saturday to deliver his acceptance speech in front of an audience of 500 dignitaries.
There was nothing unusual or unexpected about the relatively short 10-minute speech, in which he promised to “make the country a great ecological powerhouse by radically transforming our means of production, the way we travel , of our lives”, and warned participants that “rarely has the world and our country been confronted with such challenges”.
He ended by invoking France’s tripartite national motto, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, originally the famous slogan of the French Revolution. Nothing unusual or unexpected here either. Most countries have tripartite national mottos that their politicians reproduce in speeches, such as, say, “peace, order and good government” from Canada, inherited from the heyday of the British Commonwealth, and “life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” of America, taken from the preamble to the United States Declaration of Independence. And let’s not forget Come, Vidi, Vici (I came, I saw, I conquered), Caesar’s choice as the appropriate motto that defined the martial spirit of Rome.
Except in his speech, President Macron tagged an addendum to the French motto by verbalizing it, in one sentence, as “liberty, equality, fraternity and secularism”.
And why did he believe it necessary, on this august occasion, in this grand setting, to add secularism to this trinity of precepts which, since 1789, had alone embodied the national soul of France? And what, pray tell, is secularism?
People outside of France, especially in the English-speaking world, have struggled to understand what secularism represents in French society and why the French have become so attached to it, so obsessed with it and so protective of it?
Laicite loosely translates to laïcité or “being secular,” but that falls short of interpreting what it means in law, culture, and daily life, where it has played an important role.
The term, you see, is semantically more complex and, in French public discourse, more politically charged, than it is when simply translated into English as “secularism.” In short: secularism resonates differently to French ears than to other ears because its application in France is specific to French political culture.
So, although for everyone and his uncle laïcité is a benign term that vaguely means “secularism”, in contemporary France it is a battle line defining this typically French insistence that religion, with even religious symbols such as the Muslim hijab, Jewish yarmulke, Christian cross, Sikh turban, etc., should be absent from the public sphere.
Since 2004 and until 2021, several laws have been legislated in the French Assembly which prohibited the wearing of “ostentoires”, or conspicuous religious clothing and symbols, not only in public schools, but also in the public domain. , including government buildings.
In contrast, in the United States, students wear any religious attire and carry—even flaunting themselves if they wish—any religious symbols they please. And officials, including the president, are free to make proclamations, as they often do, of religious faith. Additionally, sessions of both houses of the U.S. Congress typically open with a prayer from a minister of one denomination or another.
In 2019, Muslim Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib, who was born in the United States to Palestinian parents, and Ilhan Omar, who arrived in the country with her family as a child after fleeing Somalia’s civil war, both sworn in with their left. hands on the Quran.
In the United States, this is not an issue, let alone controversial. It is however in France.
Perceptions of secularism
Few countries have such deeply intertwined histories as those of France and America. Yet, although both, in their constitutions, guarantee freedom of religion, not to mention laws separating church and state, their respective perceptions of secularism diverge significantly.
“The United States, in guaranteeing freedom of religion, has sought to protect religion from state involvement,” Rachel Donaldio, Parisian editor for Atlantic, wrote recently in the magazine. “[Whereas] France, by guaranteeing freedom of expression, sought to protect the state from any religious interference”.
In France, the struggle of the state to protect itself against the power exercised by the Church is centuries old and remains, one imagines, in the archetype of modern French. American history does not carry similar baggage on its back.
In 2021, amid heated public debate over laws passed that year, ostensibly to protect the state from “intrusive rituals” (the intrusive practices) of religion, and to protect the sanctity of secularism, French intellectual, writer and social critic Elizabeth Badinter said, when asked by a reporter what she thought was the glue that held the nation together, “Secularism is the heart of the French nation”.
Many other equally noted intellectuals, writers, and social critics have since the 1950s argued vehemently against this view. One of them is the French philosopher Jacque Maritain (d. 1973), who, emphasizing the distinction between the French model and the American model of secularism, called the latter a “treasure”. He advised Americans to ‘keep it’ and ‘not let it be your concept of separation [between church and state] turn to the French model”.
Certainly not, Mr. Maritain! I assure you that will not be the case – not by a long shot, not after we have seen what a mess he has planned to be in France.
And, Oh, why is France so afraid of religion? Look for me. But if I were France, I would ask my shrink about this complex.
Fawaz Turki is a noted Washington-based thinker, scholar, and author. He is the author of The Disherited: Diary of a Palestinian Exile.